A Late Easter
Text: John 20:19-31
Sometimes Easter comes late and that has nothing to do with the calendar. As John tells it, Easter comes late for Thomas, but he is not alone. On the first Easter morning, the risen Jesus meets Mary in the garden after which she runs to tell the boys, “I have seen the Lord.” But that night, they don’t throw the party to top all parties. Instead, they lock the doors, close the curtains, and huddle together awash in a puddle of fear. What Mary reported; well, it just couldn’t be true.
Then Jesus arrives. He is clearly the crucified Jesus, because the piercing marks of torture and execution cannot be missed, but at the same time, he is the resurrected Jesus, substantially more than a disembodied ghost on the loose. He arrives not to lecture them, “Why in the world didn’t you trust what Mary told you this morning?!” No, he arrives with a blessing, a gift, and a commission.
John Buchanan writes, “Jesus came and . . . said ‘Peace be with you’. He said it a second time so they wouldn’t miss the point: ‘Peace be with you’. And then he told them why he was there, why they were given this Easter experience: ‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you’.
“The point [of the Easter visit by Jesus] is to get these people out of that room. The point is to give them enough peace, enough of his spirit—his life and breath—to get them up and moving again. The point here—the point of Easter—is to get frightened, discouraged men and women who are very much inclined to stay put, to stay in the room as long as necessary, to get them up and moving toward the door, toward the streets of the city, toward their homes and families and communities—toward, that is to say, life in this beautiful world now suddenly, dramatically, and profoundly different because Jesus has come to them and breathed on them and sent them.”
“But . . . one in their company is missing,” writes Buchanan. “He’s actually one of my favorites, Thomas. Frederick Buechner thinks Thomas just wanted some fresh air, wanted to get away from the heavy oppression of that locked room, that prison, so he’s having a cup of coffee or sitting on a park bench feeding pigeons. I think he’s grocery shopping. I’m always concerned about where the next meal is coming from. I worry about those people in that locked room: they’re getting hungry. So, I think Thomas, the practical, the dependable, the realist, is out buying food” (from a sermon by John Buchanan preached at Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, 4/15/2007).
Whether either Buechner or Buchanan is right, Easter comes late for Thomas. He has already told his friends in the best way that I can paraphrase the Greek: “I’ll never believe what you have told me. It cannot be true. I saw them kill Jesus and dead people remain dead.” Despite his moniker, Thomas is not a doubting man. He is dead certain. Like many friends of mine, Thomas knows that all this talk of resurrection is fantasy, wishful thinking by grieving friends, or to quote the two most popular words in recent American political life, all this talk of resurrection is “fake news.”
On that first morning, Easter arrived for Mary and that night it arrived for the disbelieving disciples. It is eight days later before Easter arrives for Thomas. The risen Jesus turns to Thomas and invites Thomas to do what everyone I know would love to do – to put resurrection to the empirical test, to put all our senses to work and see if there is any truth to this bizarre claim, to nail down our faith with pure reason. The risen Jesus stares him down and says, “Thomas, see for yourself.”
Instead, Thomas does exactly what he swore he would never do. He believes without completing the empirical test. In fact, he makes one of the most profound professions of faith in all the New Testament. He looks at the crucified and resurrected Jesus and proclaims, “My Lord and my God.”
Some think Easter is all about timpanis and loud alleluias, an annual occasion to set aside our tough questions of faith, ignore our serious doubts, and chant with Thomas, “My Lord and my God.” The more I read John’s Gospel, the less I think Easter is an annual occasion at all. For John, Easter is a daily occasion for us to live as the crucified and resurrected community of Jesus. Easter faith does not require that we accept fantasy as reality, it does not forbid us to ask hard questions, to raise serious doubts, to shout to the heavens when we cannot discern the presence of God.
What Easter faith does is to get us up and out from wherever we are hiding in fear and anxiety, worried about what will become of us, what will become of the church, what will become of this world, and to move us out into the bright light of day, following the risen Jesus as he leads. What Mary, the disciples, and then Thomas learn is that Easter faith is a faith in which we no longer settle for how things are, but head out to work for a world as God intends for them to be. We may come here once a year to celebrate Easter, but Easter happens out there each day, each week, each month and it awaits you and it awaits me.
Speaking to his closest friends, the risen Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” For Mary, his disciples, and Thomas, the risen Jesus not only encountered them, he called them out of hiding and into God’s just and merciful work in the world.
I have not had such a visit by the risen Jesus, but I have had visits by his Easter messengers, people whose words or ways, whose writings or actions have called me out of disbelief into the great company of believers, who have led from the safe confines of the church into the rugged terrain of the world.
Think back on your own life. Who have been the Easter messengers for you? This past Monday, I paused long enough to thank God for those Easter messengers in my life, for those saints who did not think of themselves as saints and yet are the very people who have told me or shown me, “He is not here. He is risen.”
One such Easter messenger for me was my United Methodist grandmother who taught me to love the crucified and resurrected Jesus. She also instilled in me a love of the poetic cadence of the King James version of the Bible, even though I could never convince her that Jesus did not speak English, much less King James’ English.
Other Easter messengers for me were my mom and dad who did not talk the faith very often, but who lived the Christian faith in ways that I understand better years later.
Two other Easter messengers for me were Mark and Katie Bashor, who were the heart and soul of the Central Night Shelter in Atlanta and who refused to accept homelessness as a condition people deserve or about which committed followers of the risen Jesus can never really change.
I gave thanks for all those who have modeled the Easter blessing of “peace” for me, teaching me that strength does not create peace but peace creates strength. I give thanks for the Reverend William Barber, Ed Loring and Murphy Davis, Raphael Warnock, friends of mine who understand the path to peace leads through a concerted commitment to justice, who know that the Easter Jesus is waiting for us to catch up with him as he leads us on the road to justice and mercy.
I gave thanks for all the saints in every church I have served who have breathed on me the Easter gift of God’s Holy Spirit. For the Holy Spirit won’t allow us to believe that God could not possibly need us. As novelist and Presbyterian elder, Anne Lamott writes, “You’ve got to love this . . . God – consistently assembling the motleyest people . . . it’s a centuries-long reality show – Moses the stutterer, Rahab the hooker, David the adulterer, Mary the [pregnant] homeless teenager. Not to mention all the mealy-mouthed disciples. Not to mention a raging insecure narcissist like me” (Plan B, p. 22).
This past Monday, I also gave thanks for the saints at Cove. I could not find sufficient words to convey how your confidence in me and your steadfast love for my family over this past year have been daily Easter gifts to us and ones that we will never forget. And, finally, I prayed for the many for whom Easter has not yet come, much like Thomas at the start of this story as he listened to words that he could simply not believe.
So, Easter messengers, by the power of the Holy Spirit, you and I have work to do. Good work. Essential work. We have good news that would be a sin not to share. So, keep your eyes wide open and your hearts wide open to be the Easter messengers God is just waiting for us to be.
For, Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!